Researchers want to give AI ‘virtual psychedelics’ to learn how they affect the human brain

Researchers want to give AI virtual psychedelics to test the effects.

Psychedelic drugs are nothing to mess around with. Scientists still aren’t sure how the drugs affect the brain and cause outlandish hallucinations. Of course, testing them on humans to discover the answer is out of the question.

That leaves researchers with an interesting theory. Scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Geneva want to test virtual psychedelics on artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, Futurism and PsyPost report. Yes, it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. However, it could help researchers learn a lot not only about these drugs but also about how AI responds to something that is known to affect the human brain.

Testing the Theory

In order to test psychedelic drugs with an AI, researchers first had to create a virtual version. One of the most popular, DMT, comes from many natural sources and can also be made synthetically in the lab. DMT causes strong hallucinations and has been used in rituals around the world for centuries. However, it is illegal in the United States and many other countries.

The researchers figured out how to create a digital version of DMT by using neural networks that generate images. By distorting the images that are created, the programs created trippy scenes that are reminiscent of a hallucination.

Neuroscientist Michael Schartner told PsyPost, “Deep neural networks—the work horse of many impressive engineering feats of machine learning—are the state-of-the-art model for parts of the visual system in humans.”

He adds, “They can help illustrate how psychedelics perturb perception and can be used to guide hypotheses on how sensory information is prevented from updating the brain’s model of the world.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness.

Making Connections

Over the years, researchers have determined that the hallucinations associated with psychedelic drugs are connected to the brain’s serotonin receptors. However, that doesn’t explain why the drugs are able to alter people’s consciousness.

Now that the team has a working neural network and plenty of virtual DMT, they can start to unravel the mystery of how these drugs work. Moreover, they’ll look for similarities in the way psychedelics are processed in the human brain versus in a neural network.

Since the team claims that their AI operates similarly to a human’s visual cortex, the comparison may be more realistic than one might guess. Schartner says, “The process of generating natural images with deep neural networks can be perturbed in visually similar ways and may offer mechanistic insights into its biological counterpart—in addition to offering a tool to illustrate verbal reports of psychedelic experiences.”

This is a very interesting experiment. Since psychedelic drugs are illegal in most parts of the world, it doesn’t have implications for things like healthcare. However, unlocking the secrets of these drugs would be a major win for science in general.

Meanwhile, if the researchers are able to prove that neural networks can be used to test certain drugs, it would be a groundbreaking development for the pharmaceutical world.


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